The block of W. Florissant just south of Canfield Drive is visibly worn by the past week of protest. During the day, large crowds of protesters tend to gather outside the McDonalds that earlier this week served as a refuge for journalists and more recently as an impromptu aid station for protesters affected by CS gas. Shop windows are boarded up on both sides of the street, one quite plainly reminding passersby in black spray paint it is “Black Owned” and open for business. Across the city of Ferguson, more pockets of protesters sit peacefully in the heat and humidity.
I have lectured and led public discussions about the state of our disunion. But I have never so deeply felt the burden of its fears, its hopelessness, and, right now, its suffering.As information about the death of Michael Brown trickles out through the press, tensions across St. Louis run high. The general mood here is one of waiting for the other shoe to drop, though no one is sure what that might actually look like. Brown’s death has reopened longstanding questions about the history and geography of our city, questions that are complex and divisive. The crowds still gathered in Ferguson make it clear that many want these questions to remain open this time until something broken about the city and its suburbs is acknowledged, if not repaired.
But it is easy in the meantime to be seduced by the ease of labels. In one narrative, the policeman is the oppressor and Michael Brown the victim. In the other narrative, the policeman made a judgment call in a difficult situation, and Michael Brown could have made some better choices that day.
Neither of these narratives, though, is very compelling. In fact, the ongoing stalemate in Ferguson is beginning to feel like a failure of imagination, forcing us into the acceptance of two options. We can claim solidarity with the victim in a retrieval of our dignity, or we can pursue the facts of the case to restore our conviction that the world has order and integrity.
There is something right and true about both of these responses. Yet, in passing through the east side of Ferguson, one quickly begins to desire a few more nuanced options. Permit me an abstraction here, but in my last pass through Ferguson, I felt the weight of St. Louis in a way I never had before. I know the history well. I have witnessed or shared a few of its institutional imbalances. I have lectured and led public discussions about the state of our disunion. But I have never so deeply felt the burden of its fears, its hopelessness, and, right now, its suffering.
A flood of biblical images come to mind. Paul speaks of a creation now fallen, yet groaning with the pain of labor as it waits for God to say, “Now is the time I will make all things new.” I teach often through the passages of Joel and Jeremiah that look forward to a world refined by peace and wholeness. They could see a city “whose architect and builder is God.” And I know well the story of Jesus and the Empire—that large narrative space in the gospel that judges the powerful, comforts the afflicted, and swallows both up in compassion and forgiveness.
These are stories, options, which make better sense of how Christians should be thinking about Ferguson—and by extension the Fergusons nearer to us. These images of the gospel scattered throughout scripture compel us to act right now as if a few things are true:
It is okay to feel like you are doing something even if all you are doing is feeling compassion from a distance.
Walter Brueggemann says in The Prophetic Imagination, “Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.” Every time the church collectively bends toward compassion, it is accomplishing something important. Compassion is the public, common language of the gospel. It reminds courts and newspapers that they may have the ability to rewrite the narrative of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson at will, but they ultimately lack any descriptive power. The value of compassion is its ability to describe things properly. And it is impossible to feel compassion without being changed by it—as it reminds us that the fallenness we grieve is also in ourselves.
It is okay to be dismayed by violence.
I claimed in an earlier post that violent rioting and the militarization of police response is a “crisis of language.” If we cannot understand why such senseless escalations occur, we need look no farther than the loss of hope in a system we trust to protect our personal agency.
In conversation about this point, my friend Andy Whitman shared this memory of the riots in Detroit:
“I remember, as a kid, standing in my aunt’s and uncle’s back yard in Livonia, Michigan, on a warm summer evening, looking off to the east at the strange orange glow in the sky. That was Detroit, burning down. I didn’t understand it then. And truly, I don’t understand it now. For me, “neighborhood” has always been a positive word. It means Home. And so the best I can do is try to put myself in the place of someone for whom home is a prison, a nightmare, and try to grasp the despair and helplessness that ultimately says, ‘F*** it. Burn it all down.’”
This terrible idea—“someone for whom home is a prison”—must not be overlooked. As a story about prisons and prisoners, the gospel allows us to enter into this suffering—and, like Christ, seek ways to share its burden. Walter Brueggemann again: “The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one.”
It is okay to listen, and to wait.
There is a cure for failures of imagination, which is to take a step back and start listening again to what is happening. This may strike some as anemic. We feel as if there is much at stake in Ferguson, and we must do something to ensure our convictions survive its fallout. But as David Dark points out, “What the pundits call wishy-washiness, the Bible calls repentance.”
Any crisis is an opportunity for us to hear again what God has to say about who we are. Ferguson is an opportunity for us to be refined, reformed, and perhaps even sent out again with a social imagination more deeply affected by the suffering of others. If the gospel is to take shape in our local cultures, this is where it will begin—the quiet act of listening, waiting, and thinking in new ways about what the church means for our cities.
img via CCPGrey